Session Two: Suffering

Scripture:  Ezekiel 5:1-4

Open with prayer.  Ask if one of the participants would like to offer the opening prayer.


An den Wassern Babylons, Diözesanmuseum Freising

An den Wassern Babylons, Diözesanmuseum Freising

About 2,600 years ago, an ill-conceived war resulted in the total defeat of the Kingdom of Judah, a kingdom that represented what was left of ancient Israel.  The winner of that war was the Babylonian Empire – the ancestor of the nation we now know as Iraq.

Israel has always been vulnerable because of its location.  Egypt sits to its south.  Hostile powers are on its north and east.  In ancient times, those hostile powers were Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia; today, they are Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

Let’s take a look at the geopolitical crisis that faced Israel 26 centuries ago.  The Assyrian Empire dominated the Near East from about 745 BCE.  The Assyrians defeated the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 772 BCE, threatened Jerusalem, then pushed into Egypt.  Assyria became the dominant power in the region, but Assyrian power only lasted about 50 years.  Judah got some breathing room for about 30 years, but before long, a new power arose in the region: Babylonia.  The Babylonians defeated Assyria, then Egypt, and the little nation of Judah took on a new strategic importance.  The Babylonians needed to secure their western flank – Judah sat between Babylonia and Egypt – so they insisted that Judah must come under their influence.  Sometimes Judah submitted to Babylonian rule; at other times, Judah resisted the Babylonians.  Their waffling brought about their destruction.  The Babylonians invaded Judah and Jerusalem three times: in 598, 587, and 581 BCE.  The kingdom of Judah collapsed under the superior force of Babylonia.

The Babylonian Empire had an official policy toward conquered territories that was devastating to Judah.  The Babylonians removed the leading citizens from Judah and took them off to Babylon.  The Babylonians believed that it would be much more difficult for Judah to rebel against Babylonian rule if they had no leaders capable of organizing a rebellion.

The first time the Babylonians entered Jerusalem, in 598 BCE, they took away about 3,000 Judeans.  But that didn’t do the trick.  In about 588, King Zedekiah revolted against Babylonia and brought the wrath of an angry emperor on his country.  The city of Jerusalem fell.  King Zedekiah was captured.  The Temple – the very house of God – was burned to the ground.  Jewish rebels assassinated the Babylonian governor of Judah, and many Judeans fled to Egypt.  The Babylonians took another 800 or so Jewish leaders off to Babylon.  A few years later, in 581, the Babylonians deported another 750 Judeans to Babylonia.

This deportation – this capture and removal of about 4,600 of Judah’s leading citizens – is known as The Babylonian Exile.

Not all the Jews were taken into Exile.  In fact, most of them were not.  They stayed in Judah, but they suffered terribly under a repressive regime that cared little whether they could feed and clothe themselves.  Judah was defeated, in every sense of the word.  It lost its independence, its land, its government, its kings, and, most important of all, its Temple.

There is no question that this was a political crisis for the people of Judah.  But it was also a theological crisis of the highest magnitude.  Where was God in their defeat and suffering?  Why didn’t their God protect them?  Why did God allow this to happen?  Did God abandon them?

The Babylonian Exile lasted for about 50 years.  In about 539 BCE, Babylonia was defeated by Persia, under the leadership of Cyrus.  The Persians saw no need to continue the deportation policy of the Babylonians, so the Jews were allowed to go back home to the Promised Land.  The Jews started returning to Jerusalem in about 537 BCE, with Cyrus’s encouragement, to rebuild their land, their Temple, and their relationship with their God.

Each of you has experienced your own form of Babylonian Exile, and have returned home to rebuild your life.  Of course, your circumstances of Exile were very different from those of the ancient Judeans.  You were not conquered, you were not captured, you were not deported.  You volunteered for military service and you went to Babylonia because your country asked you to go.  These scriptures are metaphors for your experience, not representations of it.  We deeply respect and honor the reasons you went to war and the service you gave.  But even though your experience took place in a much different circumstance and for much different reasons, still it functioned in some ways as a period of Exile for you.  Now that you know what Babylonia looks like, feels like, smells like, and tastes like, perhaps these scriptures will have new meaning for you.

Today’s lesson is about suffering.  Suffering can mean a lot of different things.  It might be your own physical suffering as a result of injuries.  It might be the suffering of your comrades who were wounded or killed.  It might be the suffering of the Iraqi people.  It might be the suffering of your friends and family who worried about you while you were gone and missed you.  Let’s look at suffering through the eyes of the prophet Ezekiel.

Ezekiel was called to be God’s prophet in about 593 BCE, and he was among the first group of exiles taken to Babylonia – so he was already in Babylonia before the fall of Jerusalem.  He understood that everything that had seemed permanent and reliable to the Israelites was gone.  He saw his job as trying to help the Exiles make sense of what had happened to them and to help them survive in Babylon.

Perhaps the most important message Ezekiel had for his congregation was to assure them that God was with them, even in Exile.  Ezekiel talked about a God who was not glued to the Temple in Jerusalem, but who could travel wherever God wanted to go, and could be

present to them no matter where they were. With God’s help, the people could survive Exile but not be completely overcome by it, even at its worst.

There are a lot of passages from the Book of Ezekiel that might be helpful or interesting when we talk about suffering.  Ezekiel performed a series of symbolic actions that announced the destruction of Jerusalem.  Ezekiel did not actually witness the destruction of Jerusalem; he heard about it from eyewitnesses as they arrived in Babylon – but even though he didn’t see it with his own eyes, he certainly saw it in his heart and in his soul, and he experienced it as profoundly as if he had been present.  Maybe we should look at these symbolic actions as metaphors for suffering: Ezekiel’s suffering and the suffering of the Jews.  Let’s take a look at one of Ezekiel’s symbolic actions and see what you think.  Is this story a good metaphors for suffering?

Ezekiel 5:1-4 (NRSV)

1And you, O mortal, take a sharp sword; use it as a barber’s razor and run it over your head and your beard; then take balances for weighing, and divide the hair.  2One third of the hair you shall burn in the fire inside the city, when the days of the siege are completed; one third you shall take and strike with the sword all around the city; and one third you shall scatter to the wind, and I will unsheathe the sword after them.  3Then you shall take from these a small number, and bind them in the skirts of your robe.  4From these, again, you shall take some, throw them into the fire and burn them up; from there a fire will come out against all the house of Israel.

Do any of your Bibles use significantly different language that we need to hear?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What happens to Ezekiel in this passage? (He cuts his hair and his beard, then divides the hair into three parts.  One part he burns in the siege of the city.  A second part he scatters all around the city.  The third part he hides in his robe.  This is a symbolic re-enactment of the siege of Jerusalem: some died in the city, some were killed in flight, and some were taken into exile.)
  2. What do you think this means?  Why do you think Ezekiel did this?
  3. Does this remind you of anything that has ever happened to you?
  4. How does this story describe suffering?  Is this a helpful metaphor for suffering?  What does Ezekiel think suffering looks like?  What do you think suffering looks like?

Close with prayer, lifting up the issues and concerns expressed by participants.  Remind them that God is always present, even in their worst suffering and darkest moments.

Next session: Grief

Other Sessions

Session 1: Introduction
Session 2: Suffering
Session 3: Grief
Session 4: Hope
Session 5: Restoration
Session 6: Homecoming